Fickle feathered friends

From Tweety Bird to the coal mines, canaries are THE stereotypical caged songbird. I don't think you could blame either Geoff or me for thinking that a research colony of these birds would be a metaphorical piece of cake. After all, current breeders for the show and pet trades mass-produce hundreds of young fledglings every season--without research facilities or a willing army of undergrads to tend them. Although I love field work, the strength of the research questions answerable with these colorful, muscial critters made me jump to lead the canary initiative. Wild animal research is full of frustrating unpredictability; captive research should be a relative walk in the park, right?

WRONG. So wrong.

From a two-months-early molt to a periodic outbreak of parasites to a startling epidemic of legs stuck in cage wiring, canaries have proven both unpredictable and often untenable as a research system. Whether it be from the centuries of artificial selection or some product of their upbringing, the well-fed and -watered birds in my aviary are more wimpy than any wild bird I have handled. As it turns out, doing research on birds that act like you've performed invasive surgery whenever you do so much as pick them up is a true test of patience and optimism.

Many rounds of medication, several IACUC protocols, and hundreds of hours of husbandry later, I had a breakthrough yesterday: I was able to take a small blood sample from several dozen of my molting birds, both of yellow and white varieties. If you know anything about my research, this--including the molt period part--is absolutely fundamental to my dissertation. Most importantly, the birds recovered almost instantly from the needle prick, as opposed to their "woe is me" attitudes of the past.

The battle is not yet over: I am still wary of sampling from my "white dominant" birds, who came from a separate breeder than the others and remain smaller and apparently more fragile than their more robust friends. I will almost certainly not be able to perform immune challenge experiments during this year's molt period, so I must wait until next year--adding a year to my possible PhD tenure. And, because gut parasites may still be troubling my birds, I spent many minutes yesterday with my eyes glued to the birds, waiting for fresh poop to catch and scoop into a tiny plastic vial. Really.

But it is all worthwhile when, at the end of the day, I open a centrifuge and see a perfect sunburst of separated blood samples shining up at me. The best part is the stark contrast between the rich yellow plasma of the yellow canaries and the colorless plasma of the carotenoid-free birds, a visual proof-of-concept that always brings me equal parts relief and amazement.

Now, to perfect a lab assay that works properly on these tiny volumes of avian plasma...

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